Real story of newspaper collapses - Tucson Local Media: Editorials

Real story of newspaper collapses

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Posted: Wednesday, January 21, 2009 12:00 am

It’s a restaurant across town you don’t go to often, but you recall it fondly and it’s been there for years. Some time back a new owner took over. You sense something’s wrong when you note the hostess station is gone and you just pick up a menu and seat yourself.

Next hint is the chair with a small tear in it. You open the menu and that great half-pound Angus beef cheeseburger is now 1/3 pound, the cheese is extra, and they no longer mention Angus.

You ask the waitress (that’s a female “server” for the politically correct — a male one is called a “waiter”) about the special. She just started and has to ask.

It’s the height of lunch hour, the location is good, but the place is almost empty. You know you won’t be back and you give them six months.

That’s the real story about the collapse of the American newspaper industry. They’ve been run like a bad restaurant that sees profits dip and responds by lowering product quality. Not selling enough burgers? Make ’em smaller and raise the price. Use cheaper meat. Shrink the bun. Charge for the tomato.

Conservatives believe many newspapers are in trouble because of their liberal bias. Partly, but it’s not the main reason. Incompetence is.

For years most newspapers existed with captive advertisers, like car dealers, home builders and furniture and department stores. They could print anything and the ad dollars kept rolling in and maintained profit margins high enough to induce jealousy in the oil companies they regularly trashed for price gouging. They arrogantly named the stuff around the ads “the news hole.” Management thought the gravy train would never end and kept that margin by constantly making newspapers worse.

When Tucson had a much smaller population and circulation base, both papers, like other dailies, gave you more. They once had science editors and music critics. They’ve since rationalized these and other items as only appealing to a small portion of their readership and either replaced them with free-lancers and syndicated material or eliminated them all together. They failed to realize that every small category they cut meant a few less readers. Example — a friend gave up the deeply troubled Tucson Citizen long ago but still grabs the Saturday edition so he won’t miss Prince Valiant.

They hire recent J-school grads far more ignorant about what they’re supposed to cover than the previous generation’s copyboys and typesetters. They bought that crap that people can report about everything without knowing anything, and it shows in the “dumbing down” common in most news rooms. Today’s reporters have far less general knowledge (and far more arrogance) than their predecessors. That illness runs to the top of the journalist food chain.

That at some point lack of quality would run into economic hard times never entered their equation. When it did there was no margin for error. They’d already cut too much substance to keep up yesterday’s profits. That’s why many will fold, but those predicting the end of the newspaper business exaggerate. No determinism was at work. Those flopping like beached mackerels brought failure on themselves. They will simply be replaced by other media, electronic and online, and new newspapers.

I grew up in L.A. when there were five dailies. Only one, the L.A. Times, is left. But there’s lots of newspaper racks all over Southern California filled with papers that expanded from suburban dailies to regional papers, or from weeklies to dailies.

Institutions often go through periods of decline and then rejuvenate. I look forward to the better products that will ultimately emerge from the current newspaper crisis.

Listen to Emil Franzi and Tom Danehy Saturdays 1-4 p.m. on KVOI 690 AM.

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